Lifelong snowdrop enthusiast Naomi Slade offers tips on how to make the most of these winter beauties.
Naomi Slade has always had a soft spot for snowdrops. Growing up in west Wales where winters are cold and damp, she would gather a little posy of snowdrops for her mother on Valentine's Day, when little else was in flower.
Years later, the keen horticulturist and author has charted her love of these pint-sized beauties in The Plant Lover's Guide To Snowdrops, where she not only examines the many different varieties, but offers design ideas on where they can be shown off to their best.
"Very often people leave snowdrops to make the best of things unaided," she observes. "If they are lucky, they get divided or fed, but the predominant regimen is one of benign neglect.
"A little care pays dividends, however, and to elevate the show from just delightful to simply fabulous, it is worth thinking about plants to accompany snowdrops as a background or counterpoint."
While snowdrops look amazing naturalised in a woodland area, if you have a medium-sized garden they look best with other plants, says Naomi.
"In general, if a plant keeps itself to itself - think clumping ferns, small bulbs and specimen trees - it is probably a good neighbour as far as snowdrops are concerned," she observes.
Avoid placing snowdrops with dense evergreens with mats of roots, spreading plants such as comfrey and some of the more vigorous geraniums and herbaceous perennials that need dividing every few years such as heleniums and asters.
Instead, partner them with other small bulbs, she suggests.
"They look great with purple Crocus tommasinianus and dwarf irises, or planted under a tree with bright gold aconites or cyclamen. A backdrop of foliage also shows them off to good advantage, so position them among small evergreen ferns and around Sedum spectabile cultivars and clumping, well-behaved geraniums (avoid the thuggish spreading types as they may well swamp the bulbs).
"Grasses are another pleasing companion and not necessarily the most obvious choice - that particular award is held by hellebores, and not in a bad way, either."
Personally, I wouldn't particularly think of putting snowdrops in a container, but Naomi has other ideas, although they will need plenty of TLC if you put them in a pot, she warns.
"If you want to try growing them in a container, choose decent-sized pots, repot every year to avoid depletion of nutrients and a general reduction in compost quality, and make sure that the pots don't freeze."
Create temporary displays in pots, planting vigorous clumps into large tubs mixed with hellebores, small evergreens and primroses, or plant them in pots on their own, or alternated with similar sized pots of irises, crocuses or succulents.
For container planting pick a robust candidate, species Galanthus elwesii, G. nivalis, or the common double Galanthus nivalis 'Flore Pleno' are all ideal, she says.
For small pots you can plant them with colourful heuchera or Tellima grandiflora or with the black lilyturf, Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens'. They also look good as part of an arrangement with mini daffodils and trailing ivy and add sparkle to more formal, larger containers with clipped box forms and skimmia.
In large gardens, they can form spectacular swathes against dark branches and evergreen leaves, but never plant them in a straight line or regular pattern. Just scatter the bulbs randomly and then plant them where they fall.
If you have a lawn which has a lot of foot traffic, avoid planting snowdrops there as they don't like being trampled and won't welcome their leaves being cut by the mower early on in the season. They do well planted under cultivated shrubs and trees such as butcher's broom (Ruscus aculeatus), an evergreen with red berries, variegated holly or even sorbus and hawthorn.
In rockery settings, common types such as Galanthus 'S. Arnott', G. nivalis and G. elwesii will multiply fairly quickly to make a good show. Try G. 'Flore Pleno' with alpine plants such as sempervivums, sedums and lewisias.
"Ultimately, the trick is to use your snowdrops well. Put them where you can see them, let them spread and multiply and they will repay you generously with your own personal winter spectacle."
The Plant Lover's Guide To Snowdrops by Naomi Slade is available now, Timber Press, £17.99
Best of the bunch
The jewel of the winter garden, sometimes known as the Christmas or Lenten rose, this popular perennial flowers reliably from late winter to early spring. Its elegant flowers and attractive leathery leaves bringing a lift of colour from pale green to white, cream to pink, and purple to almost black. There are about 20 species of herbaceous, evergreen, perennial flowering types. Their resistance to frost and tolerance of shady conditions makes them a popular choice and favourites include Helleborus foetidus, Helleborus niger and Helleborus hybridus.
Plant them in heavy, rich, limey soil that won't dry out in summer months. Their leaves die down in June or July, after which the plants should be kept cool and shaded until they begin to grow again in early spring. They are wildlife friendly, a valuable source of pollen for early bees, and also make a good houseplant.
Best planted in herbaceous borders and in areas between deciduous shrubs and under trees, hellebores sit beautifully with snowdrops, primula and pulmonaria. Cornus, often grown for its coloured stems which are brightest in winter, and mahonia, a popular winter-flowering shrub grown for its bright yellow flowers, are also good plant partners.
Good enough to eat
If you are growing rhubarb and fancy harvesting some a little earlier than normal, place a rhubarb forcer or upturned bucket or dustbin over one of your well-established crowns now. The combination of darkness and warmth will help to produce the sticks earlier and should ensure they are tender. Forced rhubarb should be ready to harvest around eight weeks after covering. Don't force the same crowns two years in a row. Alternate them for the best results.
- Lightly prune Group 2 clematis - the early to mid-season, large-flowered hybrids - before new shoots appear
- If the weather's good, treat your wooden furniture with coloured or natural wood preservative
- Plant dormant crowns of lily-of-the-valley between shrubs, in rich soil
- Sow early, fast-growing crops such as radishes, early carrots and lettuce, in a frost-free greenhouse
- Reorganise your storage space, making room for tools and garden equipment and de-cluttering your shed
- Continue to remove dead pansy flowers and stems to encourage them to flower again
- Water patio plants which are sheltered by your house occasionally
- Continue to chit potatoes to give them a head start
- Move deciduous trees and shrubs which have outgrown their allotted space or are in the wrong place, while they are still dormant
- Keep a bag of grit or salt on standby to sprinkle over icy paths